Torah portions are usually named after the first word or two in the section. This week, it’s “vayakahel” –it’s a verb based on the word for community (kahal), and it’s often translated as “convoked”. Moses “communitied the community”. Since leaving Egypt, Moses has been trying to get this group of people to gel into an identified group; one that identifies with each other as much as how they are identified by others.
That’s what the people embark upon this week: the actual building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, God’s house. Moses told everyone to bring a gift that comes from their hearts, whatever moves them. And my, what gifts appeared! Gold, silver, copper, cloths in gorgeous colors of purple and blue, crimson and gold. There were spices and skins, linen and lapis lazuli. With Betzalel at the helm, all the gifts became planks, poles, curtains, screens, tables, lampstands, lighting and more.
“All the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (Ex: 35:25) Many communities have known the value of its women sitting together, spinning or quilting or doing some other handwork. History, story-telling , wisdom, all passed down through stitches and fabric. Truly, they weave the fabric of the community, and it’s no different for the Israelites out in the wilderness.
When my kids were little, I was part of a group we called “Stitch and Bitch”. Once a month, about half a dozen women gathered to work on whatever project we had, like knitting , crocheting, etc. It started small, with one woman giving knitting lessons to another, and it just grew. I had just married my husband, and moved to a new town. These were all his friends, and they welcomed me with open arms and yarn bags. It took a while for the men to join us, although they did eventually. The entire feel of the evening changed at that point, I must admit. That was over 25 years ago, and those friends are still the people I can call on (or Facebook) anytime.
Similarly, when we moved back to Chicagoland, I went to a heavenly little place called Family Network in Highland Park. It was a drop in center for moms and kids under four years old. The kids played in supervised rooms, and the moms sat in another room. Another room! Without our kids! I called this place “Nirvana on the North Shore”. My daughters called it “Family Neckwork”, and some (!) days, we got there when it opened and stayed till naptime. Many things went on in the moms’ room. One woman used to bring her ironing, and another brought her checkbook to reconcile. Some new moms slept, and we made sure they had some quiet. One woman came to Family Network, escaping an abusive husband, and we held her tight through the legal proceedings, the pain and the tears, while her son got to play with new friends. All of us talked, cried, and mostly laughed. Serious conversations took place across those donated couches. And one or another of us always had a ball of yarn and a project going.
The Hebrew words of the phrase I quoted earlier read, “kol isha (each woman) chachmat-lev (wisdom of the heart) b’yadeha”(in her hands)…each women with wisdom of her heart in her hands…” Much wisdom was passed, friend to friend, at Family Network. And more than yarns and linen got woven into the Mishkan. Those women were involved in holy work. They created the fabric of an entirely new people during that time, one that was inextricably tied to the past of slavery, the recent revelation at Sinai, and the promise of a future.